As a newbie to the wonderful world of travel, I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of countries around the world is limited; New Zealand is no exception. I booked my trip two months prior to my departure date, selecting a one-week stint before returning back to Australia. One week! I am embarrassed now to admit it. This is how little I knew.
After booking my flights, I decided to start researching. I’d double-tapped several beautiful New Zealand shots on Instagram but had little understanding of where the locations were within the country. I picked up a copy of the traveler’s bible (Lonely Planet, of course) and began making a list of every destination that appeared interesting. After examining the now overflowing list of must-sees, I knew I needed more time. I changed my flights to cover me for three weeks, flying round trip from Melbourne to Auckland. While this was a better move, in reflection, it still wasn’t enough time!
With my revised flights and list of must-sees, I needed to determine how to travel around New Zealand. Enter my next dilemma, transportation. Because I would be traveling during the busiest season of the year (hello, summer!), a three-week car rental would cost me about $1500. No thanks. From here, I started comparing bus companies, including the well-known hop-on, hop-off backpacker bus, Kiwi Experience. I created a spreadsheet (type-A personality much?) with my list of must-sees and compared them to each of the bus company offerings, determining which covered the majority of my destinations and at the best price. The winner? Kiwi Experience!
I booked the “Sheep Dog” pass for a minimum of 17 days between the North and South Islands. I added a day in Auckland on the front and back end to fill my time and left it at that. I would determine activities and sort out accommodations while on the bus, as Kiwi E suggested. All I needed to do now was determine my Auckland itinerary for my first day in New Zealand. I was all set…or so I thought!
Upon arriving at my 8AM bus pick-up point, I met several girls waiting to board as well. We quickly became friends and began our adventure together, hopping on one of the two buses that arrived for us. Our bus driver, who described himself as a sensitive man that wears his heart on his sleeve and tells it like it is, explained the first few days of bus life would be “chaos”. Great. This was also the start of the daily, even hourly, ritual of the passing of the clipboard, both your friend and foe.
While aboard the bus each day, at least 2 clipboards would be passed around; one for accommodation and the other for activities. Accommodations were a given as everyone needed a bed the next night, but the activities clipboard grew increasingly dangerous as the trip rolled on. Activities in New Zealand can be down right expensive and it was so easy to jot your name down on that little list after hearing about each awesome adventure awaiting you. Budgets quickly went out the window when that clipboard came around.
I knew I needed a plan and approached my driver about a list of upcoming activities in each stop, something I could not find on Kiwi E’s website. How could I know what I wanted to do or what I needed to save for if I had no idea what was coming up? Thankfully, a few of my fellow travelers had discovered the Kiwi E app. The app worked (mostly) offline and provided a detailed itinerary of each day including photo stops, pit stops, grocery stops, estimated arrival times, and activities available in each location. An incredibly valuable tool!
Generally speaking, the Kiwi bus arrives into a new destination in the afternoon and leaves again the next morning. There are activities to partake in either immediately that afternoon or early the next morning before heading off to the next location. Along the way, you’ll also make a few stops for easy morning walks, bathroom breaks, and groceries. I quickly got the hang of the bus routine and was enjoying getting to know my new group of girl friends…until we arrived into Rotorua.
Rotorua is one of the places I’d recommend staying longer. Unfortunately for me, my new friends decided to stay and I could not. I had booked the minimum number of days on the bus and needed to follow a tight schedule in order to make my return flight to Australia. This is the down side of the hop-on hop-off option; you make and lose friends equally as fast once people start veering off the minimum days route. I was lucky enough to catch up with a few people further along but, for the most part, never saw the first group of girls again. I did make other friends though – not to worry!
Overall, I loved my Kiwi Experience and would recommend traveling via the bus to interested backpackers. I met a lot of great people, visited several amazing towns and cities throughout New Zealand, witnessed some of the most beautiful sights in the world, and I didn’t have to drive! If I could do it over again, I’d give myself more time. I missed out on a few activities and felt rushed and exhausted by the daily bus travel. In reflection, I’ve included some tips and recommendations based on my experience for anyone interested. Regardless of how you go, travel in New Zealand – it’s a country not to be missed!
- Planning a ride on the Kiwi E? Download the app before booking your trip.
- Think you can squeeze it all in with the minimum recommended days? Don’t do it! Give yourself at least an extra week. Trust me. You’ll want to stay longer in several places!
- Happy to stay at Base hostels? Buy the Base X card. You’ll easily hit the 10 nights and save money. Plus, you won’t have to waste time paying at reception when checking in with the rest of the group.
- Traveling in summer? Guestimate your extra days early. You’ll end up on standby if you wait until the day before to make changes to your reservation. Standby usually clears but you’ll likely be stressing until it does.
- Kiwi E has a rightfully earned party reputation with many backpackers aged between 18-25. You can certainly be outside both of these categories but it’s important to know what the majority will be like. I do not consider myself to be a partier nor am I between the ages of 18-25 but I still managed to find my people and have an amazing trip. It’s all about mindset.
Places I’d Recommend Spending Extra Nights (beyond what Kiwi E suggests):
Recommended Activities in the North Island:
- Waiheke Island day trip (not a Kiwi E activity but something I’d recommend while in Auckland)
- Waitomo caving and rafting
- Overnight stay at the Tamaki Village
- Sky diving in Taupo
- Tongariro Crossing (from Taupo)
- White water rafting in River Valley
Recommended Activities in the South Island:
- Kayaking in Abel Tasman (from Kaiteriteri)
- Ice explorer in Franz Josef
- Canyon Swing in Queenstown
- Day trip to Milford Sound (from Queenstown)
Things I Already Miss About NZ:
- Morning hikes
- Being surrounded by mountains
- The stunning color of New Zealand water regardless of whether it was in a river, bay, lake or ocean
- Kiwis saying the phrase “sweet as”
- Free and accessible walking/hiking trails throughout the country
- Real fruit ice cream – yum!